Cruelty-free makeup brushes: Synthetic or natural?

Buying cruelty-free makeup is already tricky enough, but when it comes to the topic of cruelty-free makeup brushes, there are even more things to consider. If a cruelty-free company offers brushes made from natural hair, does it mean the brushes are cruelty-free? Does it mean that the company isn’t cruelty-free? In this quick guide, I’m going to walk you through all the questions you might have about choosing brushes that are 100% cruelty-free, and share with you my personal opinion on what truly makes a brush animal-friendly.

The term cruelty-free usually strictly refers to animal testing. If a product is cruelty-free, it means that it hasn’t been tested on animals at any point of production or afterwards. Cruelty-free does not however take into consideration things like animal ingredients, meaning that a product can still be certified cruelty-free by the Leaping Bunny and contain animal ingredients. This is a controversial subject and it’s very subjective where the line between what is and isn’t literally “cruelty-free” can be drawn, but for the sake of clarity: cruelty-free refers to the testing methods, while vegan refers to the ingredients.

As you know, most makeup brushes are made from natural bristles of animal hair. Brushes themselves don’t have to be tested on animals, and are often sold by makeup brands that are completely cruelty-free in the sense that they abide by a strict no-animal-testing policy and are sometimes even certified. By this standard, it might be logical to conclude that brushes made from natural hair are also cruelty-free, although not vegan. This might sound right, but I disagree with it 100%, and here’s why.

Where everyone draws the line when it comes to what is and isn’t cruelty-free is sometimes a matter of opinion, and while I have pretty strong convictions given that I’m passionate about living cruelty-free and what it means to me, I also respect most opinions on the subject. And I’ll share my personal opinion with you: I believe that no makeup brushes made from animal hair can be cruelty-free. This applies to the vast majority of brushes, especially those that are cheaply-made in places like China. About 99% of brushes made from natural hair are, in my opinion, obtained from cruel methods that can be just as cruel as animal testing.

Many companies claim that the hair used in their makeup brushes is obtained through “humane methods” and that the animals only “get a haircut” in the making of those mass-produced brushes. But who are we kidding! Does that sound plausible to you? Even though there’s no real way to prove it, it all sounds like sugar-coating to me. Also remember that a lot of brushes use badger hair and squirrel hair, and in those cases, it’s safe to assume that those small animals are getting more than just “a haircut”. So there you go: I believe that buying synthetic, or vegan, brushes is the safest way to ensure that your makeup tools are cruelty-free.

That being said, I still support cruelty-free companies that sell natural hair brushes under their brand, although I will personally not buy or recommend buying their animal hair brushes. Sonia Kashuk is an example that comes to mind: the company is cruelty-free and their makeup brushes are excellent, but I only choose to buy their synthetic ones. It’s a matter of preference, as well as where you personally draw the line. If you’re a cruelty-shopper and still buy non-synthetic brushes, I’m not here to preach. After all, the official message of these brands is that their animal hair brushes are, indeed, cruelty-free.

Lastly, I want to point out that there are many companies offering quality vegan brush lines completely made from synthetic hair, at every price range. EcoTools and Everyday Minerals have some decently-priced soft vegan brushes, Illamasqua has a completely vegan and super wide range of makeup brushes, and there are other independent companies that offer synthetic brush sets available online, like Pirouette or Nanshy.

Where do you draw the line? Do you avoid all animal ingredients? Are you fine with all animal ingredients, or do you only buy cosmetics that contain some of them, like beeswax, and avoid others? Or like me, do you draw the line at animal hair brushes?

Stay tuned for my personal cruelty-free and vegan brush suggestions!

Image credit: Vassilis
  • Beth Brootality

    “[…] I’m not here to preach.” And this is why I love reading your blog. So many vegans just want to speak down to other vegans, and it seriously discourages the movement. No one is perfect, and some vegans just don’t know or think about things like this. They will probably read this and think, “This is a really good point, and I haven’t though about it.” Versus if you had preached and condemned them, they’d just want to keep a closed mind out of spite.

    • Thank you for commenting on this, Beth. You’re totally right! I want to be as inclusive as possible, and I can’t stand that holier-than-thou approach because it does the opposite and alienates.

  • Destinee McGhee

    Thank you so much for this post! I know Morphe also has amazing synthetic brushes that are affordable as well. I have a bunch and am working on making sure all of my brushes are synthetic/vegan. I also know It Cosmetics, Wet N Wild, Makeup Geek and Juvia’s Place carry all vegan/synthetic brushes.

  • K. M. C.

    One of the things that makes me wonder the most on the subject is the case of goat or horse hair brushes… You see I have a background as an animal groomer. I know from this experience that the clippers used can easily remove hair close to the skin, without cutting skin- just because of the way they are made. (There are different blades, that are shaped like combs with no flat edge whatsoever. Each is a specific length that can only remove the corresponding length of hair; if you try to go shorter it literally will not work, the hair will remain that length now matter how many times you run the clipper over/through it.) It takes some learning, but once you know how to use them (and if it is your job, to groom animals or shear goats or sheep, I’m guessing you would still need to have that training to be hired for the job- whether a business cares about animals or not, competent workers bring in higher profit) Additionally, grooming a domestic animal is actually beneficial for them: it stops tangles and mats forming that can irritate the skin, in winter months stop snow from sticking to the legs and underside of the body, and in warmer months it provides relief from the heat. Knowing how animal hair is removed, leads me to wonder if it depends on the animal? For example if someone asked me to collect a goats fur for a brush and a badgers, I could grab my tools, contact a farmer, and have the supply set up, knowing I could go in and at best actually do something that raise the animal’s comfort, or at the very least collect the hair for my employer without ever hurting the animal whatsoever. With a badger however, I would decline, knowing it meant trapping and caging an animal (at best) before ever even picking up my tools.

    I would like to know if anyone has any information on Sable/Horse Hair versus Badger/Squirrel etc. Personally I feel like it is easily possible to have Sable without harming an animal but impossible to do so for Badger. Of course, I do not have experience seeing where they actually make the brushes or their process. Has anyone ever seen the process of brush-making that could tell more?